Feb 18, 2021 - Economy & Business

States make it easier to clear up criminal records

Illustration of a paper shredder shredding a jail cell door
Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Michigan is poised to enact the nation's most lenient "expungement" law, loosening the criteria for having a crime erased from one's record — and other states may soon follow suit.

Why it matters: In cities like Detroit, where a third of residents have felony or misdemeanor convictions that make it harder to get a job or rent a house, expungement paves the way to a higher income, better life prospects, and the joy of enhanced dignity.

Driving the news: Starting in April, Michigan's expungement rules will be generously expanded, meaning a lot more people with criminal records will qualify.

  • People will be able to expunge "up to three felonies and an unlimited number of misdemeanors" from their records," per the Detroit Free Press.
  • Two "assaultive" crimes will be allowed, as well as a wide number of traffic and marijuana-related offenses.
  • Under a "one bad night" rule, multiple felonies or misdemeanors stemming from the same 24 hours can count as a single conviction.

"This is more than a criminal justice issue — this is an economic issue," Carrie Jones, senior advisor to Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan and top point person for his Project Clean Slate initiative, tells Axios. "This restores people's ability to find jobs, housing — I mean, it just impacts so many aspects of people's lives."

What's next: By 2023, Michigan's expungement system will be automated, with misdemeanors automatically cleared seven years after sentencing and felonies after 10 years. 

The big picture: Other state legislatures — like Virginia's, Mississippi's and Florida's — are debating measures that would broaden expungement rules.

  • The bills have bipartisan support (though that doesn't ensure they'll pass).
  • Some are aimed at automating the expungement process, the way Michigan is doing — the ultimate goal of criminal justice reform advocates.
  • Code for America, a nonprofit that's pushing for automated expungement nationally, says one in three Americans has a criminal record that shows up on routine background checks, and nearly half of U.S. kids have at least one parent with a record.

What they're saying: Jansen Owen, a Republican state representative in Mississippi, sponsored the legislation there — which applies to nonviolent offenders only — and said it "targets those people who went through a span of their life where they made a lot of wrong decisions," per AP.

  • "Somebody in their 20s who got a drug conviction at 22, 24, 27 — and now they’re 50 and they go to church and they want a job," he said.
  • "They want their kids to not see that they have this mark on them."

How it works: Detroit's Project Clean Slate, begun in 2016 at the behest of Duggan, employs staff attorneys who handled 300 convictions last year — and are seeing a surge in applications as a result of the new Michigan law.

  • Crimes that can't be expunged include murder, carjacking, kidnapping, and criminal sexual assault.
  • The project — which acts as a sort of one-stop-shop for expungement — is seen as a role model: "We've been contacted by cities all over the state and country, looking to implement a program like ours," Stephani LaBelle, the lead attorney for Project Clean Slate, tells Axios.

Rose Gill of Bloomberg Associates, which serves as a pro bono consultant to Project Clean Slate, says expungement is "trending as a tool for helping people become more productive in society."

  • "It's trending away from, 'Oh we shouldn't be expunging criminal records because those are bad folks and they should just continue to have those records.'"

The bottom line: A University of Michigan study found that most people eligible for expungement don't apply for it — only 6.5% — but that people who do get their criminal records wiped tend to have "extremely low subsequent crime rates, comparing favorably to the general population."

  • They also see their wages rise by 22% on average within two years.
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